Many singers and teachers use the term or have heard about the concept of “vocal weight” in singing. However without a clear definition, the singer can be left confused about this aspect of the voice. What exactly is vocal weight and how does it affect singing? I define vocal weight as“too much thicker vocal fold mass used too high in pitch, often involving taking one register higher than it is designed to function in pitch”. In order for balance in registration to be possible, this weight must be dropped as the singer goes toward the higher range. If a singer struggles with too much vocal weight in a given register, then he or she must gain an understanding of how to drop this weight when moving higher in pitch.
One major goal in this article is to define the problem of too much vocal weight and offer healthy corrective solutions in order that the singer not struggle with the higher range.
Vocal weight does not always have to be a negative. Lower voiced singers need to learn to add weight when moving down toward the middle register (dropping it as they move higher) in order to gain a fullness of tone in that range of the voice. William Vennard used this concept in his training of the mezzo and the baritone voices. But taking too much vocal weight higher in pitch is never healthy for the voice. The result can be loss of access to higher notes, a choking feeling when sustaining higher pitches, tuning problems, imbalance in registration and a general lack of vocal freedom. All of these issues are common complaints for many singers and the solutions to these vocal issues can be multi-faceted, requiring the employment of several problem-solving skills. Usually causing a major problem in registration, the dragging of too much vocal weight upward, often due to lack of employment of head voice function (light mechanism), as the singer moves upward in pitch. In this article, we will investigate the vocal problems connected with vocal weight and the solutions in solving these specific resulting problems. It is recommended that each exercise be taken slowly at first, and then faster tempo added later.
Vocal Weight and Contrasting Vocal Colors: Often use of too much vocal weight may not make the voice sound heavy, making a proper diagnosis of what is really going on with the singer more difficult. Some singers sound heavy and dark when using too much vocal weight and some singers sound light and disconnected when using it. Because vocal weight can also involve taking one register mechanism too high in pitch, the voice can often sound white and colorless if the larynx rises. For example pop singers often take the chest mechanism (heavy mechanism) higher when singing. This can be a damaging practice if not tempered with the thin edge function of the vocal folds. Some classically higher voices, sound light and bright, disguising the fact that they are taking one register too high. Lighter voiced singers often spread the embouchure or mouth opening, in an attempt to keep a lighter vocal production. This can be a trap, especially for the early music singer. It results in a throaty and uneven sound due to a high larynx position. Even though this type of production may sound light, what many hear as healthy, the singer is actually pulling up too much vocal weight, yet “whitening out” the sound to disguise it as healthy head voice dominated singing. Because I was trained as a tenor, I have a history of this kind of vocal production, a result of being taught a high-larynx spread smile technique, which finally cost me my vocal health.
Other trained lower voices, such as basses, tend to produce an overly dark sound, which is often accompanied by vibrato problems due to the tongue depressing the larynx. Sometimes too much vocal weight is connected with voice type. When I first went down to the baritone range, it was a trap for me to depress my larynx with the tongue, a byproduct of listening too much with the inner hearing. This had to be corrected in order for my high range to release. Surprisingly to me, when I did release the vocal weight, my voice became more colorful to the listener and lighter inside my head, proof that we cannot depend upon our inner hearing for the true sound of the voice.
Whichever extreme a singer uses, it is still extremely unhealthy for the voice over time. There are many singers who suffer from these problems, making free and balanced negotiation of the registers difficult at best. Healthy negotiation of the registers is a result of employing the finer or thinner edges of the folds, with an open acoustical space (pharyngeal space), when singing repertoire. Lindquest often used what he called ‘thin edge’ exercises: staccato exercises designed to access the thin edge function of the vocal folds. This approach to solving vocal weight was extremely effective and allowed singers with a history of vocal difficulties to sing freely and evenly in quite a short amount of time.
How does a singer know when he/she is using too much vocal weight? Most singers know when the registers are out of balance because the voice feels tense, either from the overly light (disconnected) technique or the overly heavy approach (depressed larynx production). Use of too much vocal weight too high in pitch can result in the following problems: (1) flatting in pitch, (2) difficulty going into the upper range without the pushing of too much breath pressure, (3) vowel distortion, caused by tongue tension, (4) inability to sing high and soft, (5) spread or throaty tone at specific pitches, (6) breath management issues, due to lack of correct vocal fold approximation, (7) vibrato problems, often resulting in an overly-fast vibrato or a vocal wobble (slow and wide vibrato), (8) general tongue tension or retraction of the tongue, (9) inability to sing a legato line, due to abrupt changes in breath flow, (10) over darkening of the voice, usually resulting from depressing the larynx with the root of the tongue, OR over lightening of the voice, resulting in a high larynx position, (11) forward thrust of the jaw position (12) general over singing due to lack of true resonance.
In today’s world, professional singers are burdened with many demands, including grueling performance and rehearsal schedules. They are often required to rehearse in difficult acoustical environments for periods of time, sometimes working in contrasting acoustical environments. In a highly competitive profession, use of weighted vocal production can rob a singer of achieving their musical, therefore their career goals. I have seen many professional singers lose healthy vocalism in the middle of a successful career due to weighted singing. Sometimes this is due to expectations of the public. Sadly, Renata Tebaldi is a primary example of a singer who lost her career through the use of too much vocal weight. She allowed a teacher to assist in overly-weighting her voice to make a more dramatic sound, a mistake that would quickly rob her of her ability to sing in tune or to sing in the higher range freely. A friend of mine witnessed a sad event at the end of her career, when she attempted to sing a New York recital. After the first song, Ms. Tebaldi apologized to the audience that she could no longer sing. What had once been a free and beautiful voice became muscled and tense in a relatively short period of time. Tebaldi was considered competition for Maria Callas at that time in terms of dramatic expectation. This is an example of a world-class career destroyed by overly weighting the voice for dramatic effect, a result of ego overriding reason. Why do people make these career decisions? Some singers feel that with age, their voice is supposed to mature and fill out with more vocal color. In a 1968 video entitled “First Ladies of the Opera”, Tebaldi discusses the choice of singing more dramatic roles because her voice teacher agreed that her voice had “matured for the more dramatic roles”. She made herself a shining example of vocal destruction by singing in the incorrect vocal fach. When she sings on the video, it is quite easy to see the demise of her voice through use of vocal weight, thickening the cords and over-compressing the breath pressure to make an overly dramatic sound. The rib cage is pulled downward, making an even flow of breath impossible. While the maturing voice does release and open toward a rounder color and timbre, this happens gradually and is not something that can be manufactured or imposed on a voice. It is a natural vocal development that occurs as the body changes and matures. Some younger singers are encouraged to sing dramatic music at too young an age, which costs many of them their career potential. Others, like myself were taught to sing a light disconnected sound, which is detrimental to vocal health. It took years of study to reverse my vocal problems, a result of being trained in the wrong vocal fach or category.
In contrast to Tebaldi’s journey, Helen Donath is an example of a singer who handled her voice with great wisdom and care, gradually allowing her voice to become fuller with maturity. Today, her singing is quite balanced after decades of performing. She is a singer who has been careful in singing slightly fuller repertoire each decade, starting as a light voiced singer and later singing such roles as Countess in “Marriage of Figaro”. She has kept a careful watch over her healthy vocalism, making certain that the instrument is not under-produced or over-produced. I heard her in Berlin just one year ago, and she was spectacular in her performance, sounding like a young singer after a career spanning decades.
In the end, use of too much vocal weight is an unhealthy practice and causes a great number of technical vocal problems. The following case studies are examples of the specific kind of vocal problems singers can develop either through incorrect instruction, technical confusion, or by inappropriate career choices.
Case Study #1: Professional Helden Tenor: A few years ago, I received an email from a Helden Tenor who felt he was in great vocal trouble and he had upcoming performances at the Paris Opera. I happened to be on my way to Paris to teach and he asked me to see him because he was suffering such vocal difficulties. We had two early morning lessons at the Laboratoire de la voix, in Paris. This singer was suffering from vocal weight, experiencing too much heavy mechanism pulled up toward the upper mid-range. This was causing him to push a great amount of breath pressure in order to force phonation. He had been to several teachers throughout Europe with little result.
We began by singing a few opening phrases of an aria. Within 5 seconds, I knew his problem. His jaw was thrusting forward, which raises the larynx, making it impossible to phonate healthily. Immediately I brought his attention to this issue and we worked with a mirror, monitoring the jaw pressure with the hands. The vocal weight dropped off the voice. His healthy registration balance returned within minutes and we went through his entire role in “Frau Ohne Schatten” without any problems. This is an example of how debilitating one small problem can be for a singer’s vocal health. Singing is a coordination of many parts of the voice that must function in coordination.
Case Study #2: Professional Lyric Soprano: I worked with this soprano after she had appeared in several opera videos and had established herself as a popular singer in Europe. When she came into the studio, she could no longer sing in the middle register without flatting in pitch. The vocal folds would no longer close efficiently and the middle and upper middle registers were out of balance. This is an example of a singer attempting to keep the voice too young and light as the voice matured.
The solution was to release the larynx and open the pharyngeal vowel space first. Then we went to the thin edges vocal exercises to balance a healthy adduction of the folds. The opening of the pharynx allowed for a healthier adduction of the vocal folds, which assisted in balancing the registers. Her problems were a result of over-thickening of the cords, resulting in diminishing the thin edge function. This singer found vocal balance through combining the open pharynx and the thin edge function of the vocal folds. Her vocal health returned, allowing for register balance and healthy tuning. She then went on with a successful career.
Case Study #3: Professional Bass: This young professional bass was studying with a teacher who had little or no understanding of upper passaggio training. He came to me in London with an extremely thick vocal production, using the thicker vocal fold mass to produce his sound and a spread upper passaggio range. Since this approach had left him with little access to the head voice (light mechanism), he struggled with higher pitches as a result of this unhealthy production. He suffered from too much breath pressure, a retracting tongue, and an inability to sing soft or high. When he was a young student, he could sing quite freely, but his last teacher before me had called him a Basso Profundo, which invited him to sing even heavier. In truth, he was actually a Basso Cantabile, or a lighter bass singer, which is a very rare and beautiful voice. So misdiagnosing vocal fach is extremely damaging to the vocal healthy of any young singer.
I put him on several of the Lindquest vocalizes, which encouraged development of the thin edge function, making access to head voice (light mechanism) much easier. I took approximately 3 years of training to help this singer recover from his past training.
Problem Solving and Vocal Weight: The following exercise sequence is designed to assist the singer in releasing vocal weight, accessing the thin edge function of the vocal folds for proper development and production of the head voice or light mechanism.
Final Thought: Singing with too much vocal weight is never a happy experience for the singer. With result-oriented problem solving tools, it is not necessary for any singer to struggle through this kind of vocal difficulty. I hope this article can help assist in the understanding of vowel weight and solutions to help the singer overcome this kind of vocal issue.
More information can be found on this subject on David Jones’ instructional CD, “An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Teachers and Singers” available at www.cdbaby.com/cd/david. Also, look for David Jones’ upcoming book on vocal technique to be released soon.
Please address any questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2008 by David L. Jones